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Pressure builds for BYU to scrap its beard ban — but if it does, don’t expect the Mormon school to become a haven for the unshaven

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | Salt Lake Tribune)

If that jolly red-suited fellow who hands out toys and goodies to children every December wanted to enroll at Brigham Young University, he’d have to shave that lovely white beard.

So would the school’s namesake, Mormonism’s second prophet.

Beards on BYU students and faculty have been barred since the 1960s, when they were seen as a symbol of anti-authoritarian rebellion.

Five decades later, beards are in again. Nowadays, though, they are worn by establishment figures: Wall Street bankers, fashion icons, superstar athletes and suave pop singers as well as run-of-the-mill lawyers, doctors, ad executives, teachers and all manner of other professionals. They’re more hip than hippie.

Even so, the LDS Church’s flagship school remains steadfast against all facial hair, save for neatly trimmed mustaches (though the faith’s temple workers and missionaries don’t get that allowance).

Still, some say, attitudes about whiskers at the Provo university may be changing — slowly, subtly.

In 2015, BYU approved beards on campus for Muslims, Sikhs and other students to honor their non-LDS faith (admittedly a tiny group).

The school further has deemed that “full-time or part-time non-LDS faculty who are employed at BYU for one year or less may wear a beard, unless it is intended that they continue their employment with BYU for longer than one year.”

Since affiliate faculty, visiting scholars and cooperating professionals “are not university employees,” the rule says, “they are encouraged, but not required, to be clean shaven.”

That means students are seeing more and more bearded men on campus.

“The only place that enforces beards is the testing center,” says John, a commenter on the Mormon blog By Common Consent, and the only sticklers are “religion professors.”

“No one in my department,” he writes, “actually cares.”

Bag the beard cards?

There are “certainly more bearded fellows here now than there were four years ago,” says BYU sophomore Kelsey Canizales. Students who hold administrative jobs on campus and are required to monitor grooming “have also become more relaxed about the beard policy.”

Canizales does not have a full beard — or a beard card, which allows exempted students to sport whiskers — but his facial hair grows noticeably in only a few days.

“I have gone to both the student ID center and the testing center with more facial hair than I have before and not been turned away,” he says. “The students are just like me; they realize that it’s not a big deal. I think they have felt pressured in the past to enforce the policy pretty strictly.”

Canizales says he’s been reprimanded a few times and endured a “rather intense experience” while working one summer at the campus store.

“I was growing a beard [without a beard card] while working over the summer, because I wasn’t taking any classes,” he recalls. “The store still had the employees adhere to the no-beard policy, but my superiors never came down on me hard about it.”

An older visitor came to the store and confronted the stubbled clerk. “He asked me if I had a beard card, and I told him that I did not. He wrote a pretty nasty email to my poor boss about it, chewing both of us out for disrespecting the school, its president and its values.”

Canizales believes the idea “behind the policy is outdated and silly.”

“Lots of Mormons have this conception that having a beard shows a lack of personal commitment or a lazy personality,” he says. “ ... It’s ridiculous.”

BYU chemistry professor Matthew Asplund would like to see the Mormon school scrap the beard ban.

A few years ago, the administration wanted a job candidate who was Pacific Islander and had longish hair in a braid to recognize that he had Honor Code issues.

“I countered that he didn’t have an Honor Code problem but a dress and grooming problem,” Asplund explains. “It is so ironic that we have fully reached the pharisaical position that we think the way a person wears his hair can somehow make him dishonorable.”

The professor sees reasons to believe such views will change.

After all, the campus now sells caffeinated colas and nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition to end the beard ban as well.

“I sense from conversations that many at BYU are looking for an out, but don’t see how to do it without seeming to be weakening our ‘moral sense,’” Asplund says. The school “is afraid that the larger Mormon community will accuse it of going secular if they do.”

Indeed, some may be thinking exactly that.

Political science professor Kelly Patterson defends the school’s Honor Code, including the no-beard policy, as a tool to guide students in their quest for “beauty and meaning.”

The code contains within itself “an idea of what students can and should become,” Patterson writes in an email. “Even the dress and grooming standards, which some consider trivial, are a reminder of the acceptance of responsibility and a bulwark against the strong predilection expressed in modern society that institutions no longer have any say in or responsibility for the development of individuals.”

It is this stance that “makes BYU unique,” he says, “and why even the dress and grooming standards should not be treated blithely.”

How long is temporary?

In 1971, Dallin H. Oaks, then BYU’s president and now a senior Mormon apostle, told students that “rules against beards and long hair are contemporary and pragmatic.”

They are “responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time … [and] are subject to change,” Oaks added. “I would be surprised if they were not changed at some time in the future.”

Some 46 years later, a groundswell is building against the rule but BYU isn’t budging.

School spokeswoman Carri Jenkins says, “Nothing has changed.”

There are three categories for beard exemptions: medical, theatrical or religious.

Students with scarring or sensitive skin must get a note from a campus doctor. Non-LDS students who wear beards as part of their faith must secure the blessing of the university’s chaplain. Student actors in film or theater roles (including movies for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) requiring facial hair must get a note from the theater department.

“The procedure is different for each reason,” Jenkins says. Once those hurdles are cleared, “final permission comes from the Honor Code Office.”

She declined to say how many such exemptions are granted, but says the number “has remained stable for many years.”

It is not hard to find out how many have waivers, though, since a photograph of every approved bearded man is posted on the school’s website, which is open to all students and faculty.

There are a little more than 200 right now.

Jenkins explains that the online photo gallery allows teachers, administrators and students to know who has been approved, without the men having to carry around an exemption card every day.

But one of the men was not pleased to see his image there.

“Since the reason almost everyone has a beard waiver is for medical conditions,” he writes, “it feels like the school is opening a part of your medical record to the public.”

Nonstudents at BYU-approved housing must bypass beards, too.

From 2014 to 2015, Curtis Ryan DeGraw was not a student but lived in off-campus housing, and management required that he have a physician-signed waiver. He eventually went off to graduate school in England instead.

For his doctoral program, however, DeGraw is considering reapplying to BYU, because the cost is so much less than other universities.

“I am not excited about dealing with all of that again,” he says, “especially because I don’t know how subjective the beard exemptions are.”

So DeGraw’s internal debate comes down to this: Which hurt could he best endure for a couple of years — his financial future or his face?

For his part, Asplund doubts tossing the beard ban would change the campus into a haven for the unshaven.

“I am OK with expecting faculty and students to dress professionally but not requiring conformity,” the professor says. “In general, the simple standards for haircuts has worked out pretty well. If the campus made a similar set of recommendations for beards, most men would treat it responsibly.”

No danger, he believes, that BYU would start looking like 1960s Berkeley anytime soon.

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